Bill Belichick has had a lot of memorable Super Bowl game plans throughout his career. On Sunday, his defense executed what might have been his finest. The Patriots almost completely shut down a Rams Offense that averaged nearly 33 points per game during the regular season. So what did New England do that the rest of the NFL couldn’t?
There wasn’t just one coverage or scheme the Patriots used. Instead it was a combination of factors. They mixed man and zone coverages well. They were ready for the Rams’ play-action passing game and route combinations. They used stunts that gave L.A.’s protection fits. They prevented the cutback against outside zone runs. New England was prepared for everything the Rams want to do as an offense. And when they felt they were starting to lose their grip on the matchup, they dialed up a perfectly timed blitz to effectively win the game.
The combination of coverages Belichick utilized were designed to disrupt the timing of L.A.’s passing game. The Patriots predominantly played zone coverage on early downs and man variations on 3rd down. When they played man, they got their hands on L.A.’s receivers and were able to jam, disrupt, or re-route them. This threw off the timing of the Rams’ route combinations, which sometimes forced them to bleed. For instance, watch the #1 and #3 receivers on this play below.
See how those routes ended up in almost the same spot? Because those receivers had to fight through New England’s attempted re-routing, the timing was thrown off, and Jared Goff was unable to get a clearly defined picture. This was the overarching theme to Belichick’s approach.
New England also disguised their coverages. We saw several 3rd downs where a safety would start down near the line of scrimmage before sprinting to the deep middle of the field at the snap. In man coverage, the idea here was to prevent Goff from getting a clear understanding of where the help defenders would be coming from.
The Patriots’ disguise and pre-snap movement on the below 3rd down in the first half almost led to a pick-6. First, watch safety Devin McCourty. He started aligned over running back C.J. Anderson on the perimeter, before following his motion inside. This was an indicator of man coverage.
But look just a few seconds before the snap. There were no deep safeties in the middle of the field. Instead, three safeties were hovering near the line of scrimmage. Any one of them could have been rushing the passer, dropping deep, dropping to an intermediate zone, or covering C.J. Anderson 1-on-1. The possibilities were endless.
At the snap, one safety (#23 Patrick Chung) rushed the passer and one (#21 Duron Harmon) raced to the deep center of the field. McCourty, who was covering C.J. Anderson, saw that he was staying in to protect. Instead of rushing the passer or waiting for Anderson to release, McCourty provided help on L.A.’s inside-breaking routes coming from the other side of the field. Goff did not account for him, and had the ball not been tipped at the line, this would have been an easy Pick-6.
The Patriots weren’t just content to prevent Goff from getting a clear picture with disguise, though. They also did it by setting up tendencies and the breaking them. On their first four 3rd downs, the Patriots played man and rushed 4 or 5. On the fifth one, a 3rd-and-2, the Patriots dropped into cover-2 zone and only rushed 3. This took away L.A.’s shallow crossing routes, and resulted in a sack.
It wasn’t just the Patriots dictating to the Rams with their defensive coverage choices. This team was as well prepared as any defense could possibly be for what the Rams like to do as an offense. It started on L.A.’s first pass play.
As we wrote heading into this game, the Patriots needed to be ready for the Rams’ play-action passing game. One particular concept the Rams love to use is the play-action boot pass, which Goff has had success with during the postseason. In fact, in their first two playoff games, the first pass play called was a play-action boot. Sean McVay clearly likes to use this to help get Goff settled into the game. The Rams dialed up another one on the first pass play of the Super Bowl. The Patriots didn’t let it even get started.
Watch wide receiver #83 Josh Reynolds, who was coming across the formation, get absolutely blown up by Kyle Van Noy before he even got outside the hash marks.
Reynolds was Goff’s first read, and being taken completely out of the play ruined the down for the Rams.
One of the staples of L.A.’s play-action passing game is the post-cross combination. The first time they called it, though, the Patriots were all over it. Below, you can see New England was playing quarters zone coverage on this particular play, something they did often on early downs when play-action is generally more of a factor. Their two inside safeties jumped the crosser and cornerback Stephon Gilmore got on top of the post.
Goff had to throw the ball away here.
Bill Belichick is known for taking away what a team does best and forcing them to win with their B-game. In Super Bowl LIII, though, he took away the 5 things the Rams do best.
In addition to the rhythm of the passing game and the play-action, the Patriots took away the impact of the Rams’ trips bunch formations. They did this by having 4 defenders dedicated to the route combinations stemming from the formation.
They limited the damage L.A.’s best receiver, Brandin Cooks, could do by putting Stephon Gilmore on him in man situations. On several key 3rd downs, they used bracket coverage on Robert Woods. They also played a more penetrating style of run defense to eliminate the cutback from L.A.’s dangerous outside-zone running game, which is what makes that play go.
Watch #90 Malcolm Brown, aligned between the left guard and center, win in the middle off the line of scrimmage below. Tough to find a cutback lane when one doesn’t exist.
The Patriots dominated up front all night. They physically beat up the Rams’ offensive line, but they defeated them with scheme as well. In previewing the Super Bowl, we talked about the stunts the Patriots have used to generate pressure this season and throughout the playoffs. The Pats used stunts all night against the Rams, enabling them to bring consistent pressure in Goff’s face.
It started on their first 3rd down of the game. The Patriots weren’t even set at the snap, and still they got a free rusher up the middle.
Tough to settle into the game after that if you’re Jared Goff.
On the below sack, the Patriots aligned with 5 men on the line of scrimmage. This set up 1-on-1’s across the board. With each offensive lineman occupied, it is easier for stunts to hit home. At a very high level, stunts are designed for one defender to rush first, occupy another defender’s blocker, and open up a lane for that rusher behind him. On this sack, the set-up man on the stunt (Dont’a Hightower #54) actually got home first.
On this next sack, a 3rd down that nearly knocked L.A. out of field goal range in the 3rd quarter, you can see the same thing. 5 defenders on the line, a stunt inside, and the first defender (again Hightower) getting home almost immediately. They call this the “meet me at the quarterback” play.
Still, because of how well the Rams Defense was playing, the game was in doubt in the 4th quarter. The Rams were driving and finally getting into somewhat of a rhythm. That’s when Bill Belichick dialed up his first 6-man rush.
Below, you can see that the Patriots were playing “0” coverage (no deep safety).
The Patriots brought more rushers to the offense’s right side than they could protect. The design of the pressure called for Deatrich Wise (#91) and Dont’a Hightower (#54) to split the right guard and tackle with their pass rush.
The Patriots brought the two safeties behind them. With only the running back to take those two blitzers, New England got a free runner in on Goff.
Goff rushed his throw, lost his footing, and lobbed up an easy interception for Stephon Gilmore.
On a side note, Dont’a Hightower was involved in just about every big play for the Patriots Defense. Hard to understand how he didn’t win the MVP of a game dominated by defense. Oh well.
The Rams had their share of missed opportunities. Jared Goff was not on top of his game. The Patriots were a big reason for this, throwing everything at him from a coverage and pass-rush standpoint. Goff missed multiple big plays, though, including what should have been a touchdown in the 3rd quarter to a wide-open Brandin Cooks. Goff was just a step too slow to take advantage of the few opportunities he had. He was also a few ticks late in reacting to New England’s relentless approach. The Rams just couldn’t get anything going all night as a result.
When it was all said and done, the Patriots held the Rams to the lowest point total in Super Bowl history. Quite impressive considering how easy it is to play offense in today’s NFL. This was perhaps Bill Belichick’s finest hour in a career overflowing with outstanding defensive performances.
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